Pleasantly surprised (Western El Salvador)

Published: July 24th 2010
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(Day 841 on the road)When a country doesn't have its own currency but uses the US dollar, you suspect that something is not right here. When you then realise that the country holds the sad fourth place in the category "highest murder rate in the world", this feeling gets stronger. Then your guide book tells you that 95%!o(MISSING)f the forest in the country has been cut down, you start to get even more worried. And when you then read that a whopping third of the population lives abroad, you know for sure that something fishy is going on.

Welcome to El Salvador.

However, after just having spent nine days in the country, all I can say that we have been extremely pleasantly surprised by El Salvador, and that we didn't have a single negative experience here. To the contrary. We had read that the country doesn't have any real attractions, and that travellers frequently rate it as the worst country to visit in Central America.

The negative press El Salvador receives resulted in two things for us: 1) Our expectations were extremely low, so we could only win on this account. And 2), we saw only two other backpackers in our whole nine days in the country, which is pretty amazing really. In short, we had a great time. Not because we were so blown away by the sights (Izalco volcano however was spectacular), but because of the extremely authentic experience, far away from the established gringo trail in the rest of the region.

Our start in El Salvador was mui tranquilo in the lovely villages in the north-western highlands. We spent our days wandering the sleepy and picturesque cobblestoned streets of towns with names such as Ataco or Anapeca, hiking to a volcanic crater lake, and enjoying the busy weekly food fiesta in Juayua, mingling with the country's upper middle class who came over for a day trip from San Salvador or Santa Ana.

Entering the country had been no less enjoyable, with the smoothest border crossing I have had for a very long time. Due to El Salvador's membership in the CA4 ((The Central America Four)) we didn't even get our passports stamped upon entering the country.

The first thing we noticed during these first few days was that the people here seemed considerably richer than in neighbouring countries. They wear much nicer clothes; the women even wear make-up and high heels. Quite a contrast to Guatemala for instance, where everybody wears flip flops.

Intrigued, we investigated a bit and soon found out that a large part of the "income" in the country originates abroad, where a third of the country's population lives. The money that these expatriates send home accounts for roughly a third of El Salvador's GDP. Which doesn't spell a trouble-free society when you consider things like income equality. Unfortunately, from a backpacker's point of view, the extra money in the country results in higher prices for us, with especially accommodation being much dearer than in neighbouring countries.

The second thing we noticed was that the people here are considerably nicer and more approachable than elsewhere. Which is quite a feat, considering how nice people were already in Guatemala. Our theory is that the complete absence of tourists makes the locals a lot more curious towards foreigners than in more "saturated" countries.

And then, there is the crime of course. The high murder rate and the bloody civil war that ended less than 20 years ago and killed a whopping 75.000 people were pretty much the only thing I knew about El Salvador before setting a foot into the country.

In numbers, El Salvador has a homicide rate of 52 per 100.000 people. Only Honduras (our next stop), Jamaica and Guatemala our last stop) fare worse in the world. In comparison, European countries have a rate of between 0,5 and 1,5 per 100.000 people. Pretty scary, but lucky for us the vast majority of these murders are either gang or drug related, often both. But still, 4.000 violent death per year in a country that has a population of just over six million is quite a feat.

But as I said earlier, we didn't have any bad experiences or dodgy encounters. At first we were a little weary considering all the stern warnings we had read in our guide book and on our government's travel advisory website, but we soon felt at ease here.

Even in San Salvador, which has a notoriously bad reputation, we felt safe at all times, including at night around our hotel. In fact, we had a pretty good time in the capital. Just wandering around the busy downtown area was a feast for the senses; I will forever hear the cries of the sellers at the market: "Tres por un dollar, tres por un dollar!". Just everything costs one dollar there, be it twenty tomatoes, four apples, a pound of strawberries, or a delicious banana licuado (the fruit milkshakes Tino and I are having way to many ever since we set foot into Central America).

If you read this blog in search for practical tips, don't miss a trip to the great gem that is the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador, which highlights the troubled history of tiny El Salvador. While the displays are mostly in Spanish, the friendly attendant will gladly put on a couple of videos in English if you ask her. Also, we enjoyed a morning trip to the close-by Volcano El Boqueron (also called Volcano San Salvador for some reason), with its unusual crater within a crater and, on a clear day, good views of San Salvador (we weren't so lucky as it was too cloudy).

Not worth the effort and time however was our trip to the national park of El Imposible. A bad road there makes it slow and difficult to reach, with almost no facilities once you get there (with the exception of one severely overpriced hotel). They also require you to take an expensive guide along with you on any hikes in the park, which was just ridiculous as the paths are well-marked and in excellent shape. What a waste of money, especially as most of the time we were leading the way and our guide was simply trodding along at the back.

The undoubted highlight of our stay here however was a trip to the national park of Los Volcanos, two hours north-west of San Salvador. Our hopes of catching a glimpse of the supposedly stunning scenery were low, as it was the middle of the rainy season. It is raining virtually every day here, sometimes only for a few hours in the afternoon, often however for hours and hours or even days on end.

Undeterred, we embarked on our ascend of Volcano Izalco, the youngest in the area. Accompanied by a compulsory guide and two armed police officers (for guidance and protection from the banditas in the area), we set off in the thick fog. But what a surprise when the fog lifted literally five minutes after we reached the summit two hours later, offering us simply stunning views of the world below, partly hidden below white and puffy clouds. Amazing! Leaving the volcano we got a lift with three lovely Mexicans, who not only stopped at the nearby crater lake Lago de Coatepeque for a swim after the sweaty climb, but also drove us all the way to our preferred hotel in San Salvador. Muchas gracias!

For now, it is time to say good-bye to El Salvador as we are picking up Tino's girlfriend Kristina in San Pedro Sula Honduras in two day's time, who will be joining us on our travels for the next four weeks. But as we didn't have nearly enough time to do El Salvador justice, we will be back later to explore the rest of the country.

Hasta mas tarde, El Salvador!

Next stop: Roatan Island (Bay Islands, Honduras).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


24th July 2010

I am enjoying your travels Ben and look forward to your updates, stay safe and happy trails, Ursula
30th July 2010

Getting better...
I've always enjoyed and followed your blogs, but I've got to say you are simply getting better and better with your travelogues. Your experiences, helpful tips, keen observation and interesting writing style make for such pleasant reading. Thanks for sharing your adventures, Ben. I doubt I'd find the chance to go there, but I'm traveling vicariously through your blogs, cliche that that may sound to you.
23rd August 2010

The Dubliners
Hey man, I enjoy reading your blog. How do you do the panoramic photo at the top of each entry? Lots people seem to have it but I am clueless. Thanks.

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